Jo Walton’s books are so, so good, and this may be my favorite of hers that I’ve read yet. And it’s the one that is the least fantastical. It’s a sort of alternate history, but focused on one life, so it reads like realistic fiction, with some departures from reality around the edges.
The book begins with an elderly Patricia Cowan in a memory care home. She knows where she is and who she is … sort of. She knows she’s Patricia and remembers her childhood and early adulthood, but then it gets muddy. She was married … or not married. She had four children … or three. Nuclear war broke out in the 1960s … or it didn’t.
The book follows Patricia’s memories through two versions of her life, and each one is filled with joy and tragedy. But the nature of her her suffering differs. On one path, her life is constricted in ways that it is not in the other. Yet the more connected and open life has complications that do not exist in the more constricted life.
I cared deeply for both versions of Patricia (Pat and Trish). In both lives, she is a person who wants to do good, who enjoys teaching, who gets involved in her community. I couldn’t bear the thought of one version of her not being real. Both seemed so authentic, and all of her choices made sense in the context of the life she ended up having. A case could be made that one life has a great deal more happiness than the other, but it also has some huge tragedies. And both lives have considerable value.
An interesting element of the book is how history itself is different in the two versions of Patricia’s past. It hardly seems plausible that one choice made by one woman could be the linchpin of history, but Patricia’s life touches many people (a few who are quite well known), and if she caused someone to make a different choice that led someone else to make a different choice that led someone else to make a different choice, the consequences could be immense. It’s the butterfly effect. Patricia, as a teacher, a writer, an activist, a parent, a neighbor, and a friend, had the opportunity to effect many people, even if in small ways. And I think Walton is playing around with that idea, especially as the book concludes.
This weekend, as I was reading this book, I kept also listening to the music of Stephen Sondheim. And for some reason, this book kept me coming back to “No One Is Alone.” In My Real Children, Patricia is her own person, but every choice she makes touches the world. And the choices others make touch her. This is a book about connection, even those we can’t see. And it is a beautiful and devastating story.